Players mesh their talents, with hopes of winding up in NHL
by: Christopher Onstott Portland defenseman Taylor Aronson (left) levels a hit on Everett’s Scott MacDonald during Game 2 of their Western Hockey League playoff series, as Winterhawk players William Wrenn (background) and Craig Cunningham (right) surround the play.

In a few years, they all could be in the NHL, playing against one another. For now, though, the Portland Winterhawks’ defensemen are working together to shut down opponents in the Western Hockey League playoffs. “Our defensive group is probably as good as any in the league,” General Manager/coach Mike Johnston says, “and it probably will be for the next couple of years. “Four of them already have been drafted by NHL teams, and all of them could, should or will be drafted in the future.” With netminder Mac Carruth playing well, the Winterhawks allowed only two goals in two games last weekend, as Portland opened its first-round series with Everett with 4-0 and 7-2 wins at the Rose Garden. The best-of-seven match-up continued Wednesday at Everett, and Game 4 is there tonight. The Hawks are known more for their talented forwards, but if the back line can complement them and do its job, the team’s chances are good to go far in the playoffs. Here are the members of Portland’s D-corps, in alphabetical order, with WHL age, height, weight, hometown and other details: • Taylor Aronson, age 19, 6-1, 200, Placentia, Calif., third-round pick of Nashville in 2011 NHL draft • Josh Hanson, 16, 6-2, 190, Eagle River, Alaska • Joe Morrow, 18, 6-1, 200, Sherwood Park, Alberta, rated as the No. 16 North American prospect by NHL Central Scouting • Derrick Pouliot, 16, 6-0, 190, Weyburn, Saskatchewan • Troy Rutkowski, 18, 6-2, 195, Edmonton, Alberta, fifth-round pick of Colorado in 2011 NHL draft • Tyler Wotherspoon, 17, 6-2, 200, Surrey, British Columbia, rated No. 33 among North American prospects by NHL Central Scouting • William Wrenn, 19, 6-1, 210, Anchorage, Alaska, second-round pick of San Jose in 2009 NHL draft Meshing well Pouliot probably gets involved the most in the attack, but Aronson, Rutkowski and Morrow stand out as two-way defensemen. Wrenn and Wotherspoon stay at home more on defense. The group has performed for more than two months without injured standout Brett Ponich, a second-round draft pick of the NHL St. Louis Blues in 2009. The 6-7, 225-pound Ponich, a 19-year-old WHL player from Beaumont, Alberta, has yet to resume practicing after suffering a knee injury on Jan. 18. He played in 45 of 72 regular-season games. Johnston says Ponich still has a leadership role, even from the bench. “Ponich definitely was a leader when he was playing, and he probably still is,” Johnston says. Also, the Hawks are battling defensively without a 20-year-old D-man, which makes them relatively young among WHL playoff teams. Last season, they relied heavily on the physicality and ability of 20-year-old veterans Luca Sbisa, now a regular with the NHL Anaheim Ducks, and Eric Doyle. “We’re one of the few teams in the league this year that doesn’t have one or two 20-year-old defensemen,” Johnston says. The youth movement is headed by Pouliot, who mostly watched the playoffs from the Portland bench a year ago as a called-up 15-year-old. He has fit into the mix from the start this season. “We’re a pretty good group,” Pouliot says. “We mesh really well, and (assistant coach) Travis (Green) has us doing some good stuff and the right stuff so far in the series.” A key addition came in early January, when Portland was able to sign Wrenn out of the University of Denver. The injury to Ponich made Wrenn’s arrival even more timely for the Hawks, as Wrenn has been able to assume some of Ponich’s role as an older, defensive-minded presence on the back line. Wrenn has a great plus-minus rating of plus-28 in 31 games. “My teammates help me a lot,” he says. “There’s a lot of camaraderie, and the chemistry on the ice is good. It was easy for me to step in.” Staying calm The Winterhawks emphasize that their D-men skate well, push the puck up the ice quickly and, in some cases, get directly involved in the offense. Through the first two games of the playoffs, Rutkowski had 11 goals and 39 assists (50 points) this season, Morrow nine goals and 40 assists (49 points), Aronson five goals and 32 assists (37) and Pouliot six goals and 25 assists (31). “This is a pretty active, mobile group,” Johnston says. Not that Portland lacks for offense and scoring threats —high NHL draft picks Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter, along with Craig Cunningham, Sven Bartschi, Ty Rattie, Brad Ross and Riley Boychuk, are potential multiple-point scorers on any night. Portland had three of the top 15 scorers in the WHL during the regular-season, and its top two lines, in particular, are highly dangerous. “We have an unbelievably skilled group of forwards,” Rutkowski says. “If we can get the puck to them as fast as possible, they can create a lot of offense.” The Winterhawk D-men also know, though, that any sloppy moments or play lacking in energy can contribute to a playoff loss as much as their execution can lead to a win. “It takes everybody doing their part but not trying to do too much, offensively or defensively,” Wrenn says. “We just have to make the simple plays and passes. “And it’s everyone being willing to sacrifice, whether that’s blocking shots or going to the boards or whatever.” Rutkowski notes that the playoffs are “more intense, and your preparation is more focused for every game. It’s really important that we stay calm, even if things aren’t going our way.”

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